reggie watts talks
Reggie Watts – comedian, musician, singer, force of nature. The man’s fantastic. Ahead of his set at Yoko Ono’s meltdown, we caught up with him to talk everything from the NSA to Magi Mushrooms via Detroit Hair Wars and Jazz….
Hi Reggie. So, youre playing at Yoko Onos Meltdown next week, how did that come about?
Yeah, how did it all came about? I think I did a song for Sean Lennon who was doing a song about fracking in the US New York, a political thing. So I played the voice of the corporate guy or whatever, and I went over to his house and hung out and then I think he probably may have suggested me to his mum and yeah I think that was how it all happened.
Nice. Ive got a couple of quotes from Yoko Ono here, Im going to read them to you – will you tell me what you think of them? First one:
Mirror becomes a razor when it’s broken. A stick becomes a flute when it’s loved.
Yeah. I mean it just shows the dualistic nature of most things in the universe, its probably talking about choice and perception that determines the utility of a situation, haha.
Great. Very succinct, thank you. Next one:
Give death announcements each time you move instead of giving announcements of the change of address. Send the same when you die.
I hear youve spent a fair while moving about, how many times have you died?
Id say, god thats hard, depends on what you call your home, I mean staying on a couch could also be a home for two weeks, Id say maybe like 30 or so.
Yeah Im definitely a little bit more settled now I have a place in Brooklyn Ive been renting consistently for over two years, so thats good haha.
OK, can we talk about Politics? Yokos known, amongst many other things of course, as a big campaigner for peace. what do you make of the situation in the world right now, with all the wars raging. Are we doomed?
Its really hard to say because statistically – according to the population – violence is pretty low, however the impact that it has on the planet in general is definitely much more far reaching.
Its definitely been going on for long enough, I think we all know by now that violence only creates more violence and nothing is solved through that. It just causes more long-term problems that seem to be fixed in the moment but then comes back to us later. I think something catastrophic has to happen before that happens unfortunately.
And what do you think that catastrophe will be?
Id say that it probably has to be something natural or someone really fucking up and pressing the wrong button, but you know I think its one of those situations where human beings don’t get the message unless something terrible happens. And it doesn’t make any sense at all. Its also a population thing – I think that were definitely over-populated and nature has its way of correcting that. So well see.
Staying on Politics, what do you think about this whole NSA Prism scandal?
I check the news every few days and read a little bit about it, and the thing I understand is that its along the same line as people fearing a robot take-over, and the problem with technology is that its incredibly costly to monitor and keep going and people always try to figure out ways to create and run computer programs that can be able to look to flag things, record things, back up things, the problem is that its manpower its too much for people to pick up on every conversation. Were a little bit too dumb for that to actually happen. I think the idea of people trying to do that is the same feeling that people get when they want to spy on their neighbours or something like that. I think that they want to control a total situation of awareness or something without someone knowing that Im watching its nothing particularly useful.
I just dont really buy in to the threat level of it, there are too many people to monitor, and too much information. Telephone companies can barely keep things running without calls dropping out and the military develop programs but they still have problems with these aircrafts, loosing communications and yeah its just kind of shitty but ultimately people are too dumb to monitor things in totality, like they want to.
So were saved by our own stupidity?
Yeah, Id say so. People are always going to try to do that, whoever it is, prime minister, dictator, kings, they all have their own versions of trying to do this. Ultimately it always fails, it could either hurt a lot of people or accuse the wrong people and abuse the power of it, but its just a human nature thing.
You studied Jazz as a young man, do you think that experience set you on a particular path of thought? Opened your mind to different intellectual ideas/philosophies?
I think so, absolutely. Music is one of the most intellectual, mathematical forms of human communication on the planet,its not exclusively human either. In the way we do it its definitely one of the highest forms of doing that, and jazz for sure when you listen to the evolution of jazz being folk music, party music, top 40 music to experimental, exploratitive music – it de-constructs itself in some deep elements because it borrowed a lot of things from classical music, from music from around the planet – its like taking all the structures and throwing them away.
Its all these influences, like colours on a palette to be able to use in an improvisational painting, the idea of what jazz does when you listen to it and the application of actually playing it puts your mind in a state that which has to be educated but also open to manually arranging chaos and allowing it to happen as well. It definitely puts your mind in a flexible open state of being curious, explorative but also relying on the past and being educated about the past. So I think yeah for sure, it creates a space of philosophy, thats what it does.
Looking at your wikipedia page, it seems youve been in more bands than most of us have had hot meals: Hit Explosion, Swampdweller, Action Buddy, Chiarrscuro, Clementine, Smell No Taste, Das Rut, Synthclub, Elemental, Eyvand Kang Seven Nades, Free Space etc. Do you now prefer the freedom of performing solo, so you can truly veer off in any direction you choose?
I like both, I spent so much time playing in groups, I dont know if I could ever go back to regularly playing in that situation but I definitely enjoy it – playing in an ensemble. Ive definitely run into some incredible musicians along my travels and that makes me feel challenged and comfortable.
I think that being a solo artist affords you the luxury of challenging yourself and you dont have to take too many risks on behalf of a larger group, there is that kind of freedom where you can push your self and try new things. When it comes to group situations I feel most comfortable when Im playing with people who really are very great in what they do because that challenges me. I definitely had that with bands Ive played in but some of them, if I should picture myself being with them now, I couldn’t necessarily put in the time for that. But in the future perhaps, therell be some kind of concoction again.
So when you perform, youre using a synth, a loop pedal and a space delay is that right?
Yeah, its 3 components. An OP1 – Its made by Teenage engineering, a Swedish company. Its basically a tiny synthesizer; so it has drum sounds, keyboard sounds, base sounds and a sampler, so its just essentially a small keyboard. And then I have a Line 6 DL4 which is just a single-track looper with a delay effect and the other one is a 4-track looper with stereo panning, so Ive two looping machines and one keyboard, sometimes I use a reverb panel as well.
So youre setups developed over time?
Yeah definitely, I mean I was just using the DL4 before, but then I added the electro harmonics 2880, but now Im using the electro harmonics 45 000, which is a new version of it and thats the 4 track looper. I think I added reverb a bit later, its always on and off because its an extra pedal to set up. And then the op-1 was something that I was hoping for someone to create for probably the last 15-20 years because I was looking for something small and powerful in addition to the set up.
It sounds like youre pretty into music tech? Ive got a friend who specializes in making wearable, gestural midi instruments – is this something that you know much about or are interested in?
Yeah, my friend Imogen Heap uses a midi glove. I saw a performance in London, She gave a talk and then performed with it. I think its a very interesting idea for sure and its exciting to explore new interfaces. For me, I just like faders, knobs and switches, they are just so much easier to use and so much more reliable. Perhaps at some point if I find something more reliable thats not too geeky, I think its great that people like Imogen are pushing the envelope but at the moment its not for me.For me as a performer, Im interested in how it works and understanding whats going on, but in the end of it its about performing, not about technology, and if I have to be too worried about it fucking up on stage, that lowers my confidence and Ill not be able to perform as well as I could.
Youre a bit of a polymath: a singer, musician, comedian, philosopher, pretty amazing dancer too. Do you find as time goes on, you gravitate towards one over the other, or do they become ever more intertwined?
I think theyre all intertwined. I kind of view all of it as the same thing, you know the analogy I often use is, like if you where sitting cross legged on a large open floor and in a circle all around you were these various tools (different instruments). Being in the centre of it means that the tools doesnt define your creativity, theyre just extensions of your creativity, so it all depends on what interface you want to use but at the end of it all you are the creative engine. So if you feel something or see something to be brought in to the world to give people a better experience, then you use whatever tools that are necessary to get there.
But also, conversely, that can be confusing because sometimes I want to do more video-things but I realise that I cant do it by myself and need to find people to work with to make that happen. It takes time to find a team of people to work with on that level but basically, whatever youre proficient at, working with other people and other fields is a difficult thing. But I do enjoy pretty much anything thats made; technology, design, philosophy, aesthetics, music, dance, living – you know the way that construction workers are fixing pot holes in the road, the way a person interfaces with a touch screen. You know Im just interested in all of these things. I think, at the base of it, its just about being interested.
So, moving on to your fantastic hair. Have you ever come across Detroit Hair Wars?
Oh no never heard of it.
Its this amazing sort of competition thats grown up out of Detroit, a kind of hair styling competition on Steroids with people styling their hair into motorbikes, technnics 1210s, the last supper. I thought you might go in for having a drum machine hair-do?
Oh my god thats insane! Oh hell no. That would be amazing, the problem with it would be, you know Ive been doing this show Comedy Bang Bang and they have a hair person and sometimes I get styled for different needs of the show and its just too much work. The reason my hair is the way it is, is that I dont really have to do much about it, you know I just wash it out, comb it out once a week and then I just dont really do anything with it so its really a lazy man’s hair style. So that kind of goes against it while I am very fascinated about that, or the equally-as-intense beard wars, I just cant get to that level.
So, no Reggie Watts in Detroit Hair Wars 2014?
No, probably not – but I would like to judge!
Ha. So, finally, in previous interviews and in your stand up act, theres some quite clear drug references, especially towards those of the psychedelic variety. I hope you dont mind me asking, but whats the fiercest psychedelic experience youve ever had? The best or the worst of it.
Yeah well I mean I feel that some intense things have happened, Id say probably the most profound was when I kind of ran in to myself where I was out in a park one night in Seattle. It was probably the mid 90s, a friend of mine was a mushroom expert, of all sorts, so he was able to identify psychotropic mushrooms. And he identified a blue ringer or something like that, we were 5 friends who found a patch of them so we picked them, he identified them and he was just ok one of these should be great, so he just took them straight from the ground and we ate them, which was kind of an amazing thing because you always see them in plastic bags, all dry and stuff like that. So yeah we ate it and it was really strong, really really strong, and really really good. And we were just running around in this park called The Arboretum which is kind of Seatles Central Park.
So we were running around this huge park, having fun, and then I ended up going to the public bathroom. I just sat down at the seat, lowered my head into my hands and just kind of went turbo into some other crazy place. And I remember it just got so intense and later on weirdly quiet. Suddenly I was face to face with myself. And I was like Oh there you are!, it was a weird I havent seen him In a long time feeling and I remember having kind of a conversation with me, it was basically a conversation about how glad I was to see me again.
And then I though to myself, ‘oh thats what people call God, thats that feeling people talks about when something weird presents thats so familiar to yourself but its also not yourself’. That was an amazing, incredible experience that definitely effected me, where I realize that we all just go through life and sort of just entertain concepts and dont really get a chance to be with ourselves and experience ourselves, and really, that was what it was it could have happened through mediation or something else but for me in that situation it just really took me by surprise.
Sounds intense. Would you say it was a positive experience?
Its definitely positive and emotional, I remember I was crying a lot and just like Oh you came home its so nice to see you! Would you like a seat?. You know it was just weird and very nice like Oh hey! how are you? Im well and then like Well I already knew that’ haha.
Thank you very much Reggie.
Reggie Watts plays the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 18th June, as part of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown.